Thursday, November 5, 2015


I've been rereading and teaching Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981) this week, and I've been enjoying the chance to return to this novel after many years.  Quite frankly, I'd forgotten how interesting the language, imagery and narrative style are: when I assigned the novel, it was primarily for the historical content.

Kogawa's novel focuses on the relocation and dispersal of Japanese Canadians at the start of World War II.  Similar to the Japanese-American Internment in the United States, in Canada, Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry were required to leave their homes on the West Coast and reside in the (more remote) interior of Canada.

Kogawa tells the story of Naomi, a Japanese Canadian who is forced to relocate with her brother, Stephen, her uncle, Isamu, and her aunt--in Japanese, the word for "aunt" is "obasan"--from the city of Vancouver, first to the town of Slocan (540 miles away) and later to Lethbridge, in the province of Alberta (approximately 730 miles from Vancouver).

Naomi is only five years old at the outbreak of World War II; her confusion at the forced relocation is complicated by the fact that, shortly before the outbreak of the war, her mother returns to Japan for what is supposed to be a brief visit to pay her respects to her dying grandmother.  Naomi's mother never returns.

The novel is thus about Naomi's attempt to make sense of what happens--politically, socially, and personally--in the wake of her experiences as a Japanese Canadian in the 1940s.  In particular, Kogawa organizes the novel around the motif of silence: thus, the opening sentences assert,
"There is a silence that cannot speak.
      There is a silence that will not speak."
This distinction between "cannot speak" versus "will not speak" is integral to Kogawa's representation of the Japanese Canadian interment, relocation and dispersal.  Given what happened to Canadian citizens in what was supposed to be a democracy, what should be remembered and retold to future generations?  Is it best to leave the past in silence?  What effect does it have on future generations if the stories of "what happened" remain unspoken?

Kogawa complicates what we might think are easy answers to these questions ("children deserve to know the truth" and "people should be told") by examining the nature of the stories themselves: what happens if the stories that "must" or "should" be told are so horrific or traumatic that the tellers themselves are reduced to silence?  What if they will not speak, simply because they cannot?

Kogawa uses the natural imagery of tides and stone as a way of reflecting on the nature of change and the unyielding resistance that is required for survival in the wake of the attitude and events that Japanese Canadians experience at the outbreak of World War II.  Naomi's uncle Isamu thus makes "stone bread"--a substance that Naomi and Stephen refuse and/or find themselves unable to eat.  Reduced to eking out a living from the bare minimum of subsistence, Isamu learns to bake a bread that, although hard as a rock, nevertheless provides the necessary nourishment.

In the end, this is the essence of Kogawa's text: a reflection on what it means to survive, to endure and to hope in the face of virulent racism, political persecution, and the loss of nearly everything that one loves and values.  

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